Monday, February 18, 2008
No Rock the Vote for Armenian Youth
By Yigal Schleifer: 02/18/08

With music blaring from a large speaker system and a palpable excitement in the air, the final Yerevan rally of presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian almost had the feel of a rock concert. But despite the high energy, a closer look at the crowd revealed that, in terms of demographics, elderly matrons in fur coats easily outnumbered younger voters.

"Politics here is a dirty business. There is a lack of real choice -- whoever you choose, you end up with the same thing," said Gurgen Tumanyan, a 20-year-old software developer, when asked about the lack of young faces at the rally.

"Most of us are fed up with the situation, but there is no movement that I would like to join, one with fresh faces," added Tumanyan, who said he came to the rally merely out of curiosity.

Despite the prospect of change offered by the February 19 presidential election, many observers are concerned that Armenian youth -- turned off by continuing corruption and what they see as unreliable leaders -- are increasingly checking out of the political process.

A 2007 survey of 2,500 Armenians taken by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) found that 34 percent of respondents aged 18-30 did not believe their vote counts (compared to 15 percent in Azerbaijan and 17 percent in Georgia). Of the 18-30 year-olds surveyed in Armenia, 22.5 percent said they "fully distrust" the country's executive government. Only 10.4 percent said they trust the government "fully."

"The numbers tell us apathy. The society is not politicized," said Heghine Manasyan, CCRC's director in Armenia.

"That apathy stems from the experiences of previous elections, where there were a lot of violations of procedures and the Constitutional Court didn't take into account peoples' petitions to review these incidents."

One recent effort to try and reverse this growing empathy has been Sksela, a non-partisan youth group that has staged a number of theatrical political events over the last year (the name means "It has started"in Armenian). Founded by a group of Yerevan activists in their 20's and 30's, the group’s maiden event for the 2008 campaign was a Mardi Gras- style parade in which a group of several hundred revelers in costume passed out alarm clocks with attached notes saying "Wake Up."

Many of Sksela's founders -- the "avant-garde youth of Yerevan," as one member puts it -- had participated in various training programs conducted by Armenian civil society organizations, but were looking to do something more visible, said Suren Saghatelyan, a freelance consultant who is one of the group's leaders.

“We wanted to do street actions, something more active than roundtable discussions,” said Saghatelyan, who, at 35, is among Sksela’s oldest members.

He added: "Most young people in Armenia are interested in the latest mobile phones and in cars, but we are trying to offer them something different. A lot of them still don't care, but some of them are joining us."

Arsen Kharatyan, a 25-year-old doctoral student who is also among Sksela's founders, says the passing out of alarm clocks was an important symbol for the group's first activity.

"We believe that people are in apathy, for many reasons," he said. "We believe that waking them up will be a way to get more youth active. We found out that a lot of young people didn't even realize that there could be a space where you can be active."

But beyond confronting apathy, some experts say the bigger challenge is to tackle the reasons behind the continued outflow of Armenia’s young people.

"I would say corruption and the lack of rule of law are the elements that force many young people to leave. That's the driving force," said Tevan Poghosyan, executive director of the International Center for Human Development, a Yerevan think tank.

Karen Karapetyan, a 32-year-old who works for a mobile phone company in Yerevan, sees the February 19 election as an opportunity for "the young generation to see its future here."

"If the young generation doesn't see a future here, they will leave the country. This impedes development."

For many young Armenians, voting has become almost meaningless, he continued.

"When you see the politicians promise one thing and then do something else, or even worse, you get disaffected. You stop trusting."

Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance reporter who covers Turkey and the South Caucasus.